When Carl Reiner sat down to write Enter Laughing, he had no idea it would become a book. And a play on Broadway. And a film. And a failed musical. And then a revised musical. But that is precisely the path his semi-autobiographical story has taken. The revised musical, Enter Laughing: The Musical opens tonight at the Lovelace Studio Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
“The genesis goes way way back when I wasn’t even writing. I was trying to remember how to use my typewriter,” the 92-year-old Reiner says by phone. “I showed my wife. I had one short story and then I had two dozen stories. I gave them to a friend who said it would make a great book. I got it to a publisher who said, ‘these are wonderful, but do you have a novel?’ I wrote it very quickly. They bought it. I kept writing.”
The novel tells the story of a young star-struck kid from the Bronx, David Kolowitz, who dreams of being a Broadway star. His parents think he should be a pharmacist. It’s a classic “I want to be in showbiz” tale, but with the unique sensibility that only Reiner can offer.
An entire column could be written about Reiner’s accomplishments: co-starring on Your Show of Shows, creating The Dick Van Dyke Show; working with Mel Brooks on the classic 2000-Year-Old Man and directing such films as The Jerk, Oh, God!, Where’s Poppa? and All of Me. He also appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans movies.
From the book came the play written by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) that opened on Broadway in 1963. “[Stein] said this would make a dandy play,” Reiner says. “I was doing the Dick Van Dyke Show at the time. I flew in to see what Joe had wrought. It was a three-act play. Nobody wants to come back to the third act. Cut the show in half.” With those changes the show ran for 419 performances and Alan Arkin won the Tony Award for his performance. Reiner made his feature film directorial debut with the film version that was released in 1967.
The first pass at the musical came in 1976. It was called So Long 174th Street. Once again Stein wrote the book and the music was by Stan Daniels. “I walked out on it,” Reiner reveals. “Bobby Morse as the kid? He’s 40 years old. They made an abortion out of it.” Audiences agreed. The show closed after 16 performances.
Enter Stuart Ross who revised the show at the York Theatre in New York in 2008. “I never had an experience seeing a show like this,” Reiner says of his very different reaction. “Every celebrity friend was laughing at every lyric. Jerry Seinfeld put his money where his mouth is and put an ad in the New York Times. Stuart Ross put it together. Almost impossible to do but he did.”
Reiner thinks he knows why the story keeps resonating with audiences. “The thrust of the thing is this is a kid who dreams of being an actor and that actor became Carl Reiner who became a writer/producer/director/novelist/autobiograph-ist. It’s never easy to fulfill your dreams, but it takes stick-to-it-ness. If you really feel you have to be what your calling is, you have to go through all the things to take you there. I’m blessed. Every step I’ve taken is a step up. No big jumps, except maybe my jump to Your Show of Shows. All along the way nothing became a tremendous success, but good, not so terrible, so let’s keep going.”
So if it is best to enter laughing, what’s the best way to exit? “Exit smiling knowing that you had a good life,” says Reiner.